Renowned biologist, Edward O. Wilson has stated that the current extinction episode is likely to be the human-induced environmental crisis that our descendants will be least likely to forgive (Wilson 1984). With all of the focus on climate (as important as that is), biodiversity has fallen from the radar of popular culture, despite being the most critical issue we face according to the “Planetary Boundaries” research. Consider the following: currently we are committing thousands of species per year to extinction, which makes for a rate at least 100 (and perhaps 1,000) times the background rate from 10,000 years ago. We are now in the midst of the sixth extinction of geological time. The last great extinction involved the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Three important points are worth noting: 1) the current extinction spasm is the only one with a biotic cause, which of course is us; 2) we cannot affect past extinctions, but we must deal with the consequences of the current episode along with facing the burden of passing on such an unfortunate legacy to our descendents; 3) we cannot undue extinctions -- they are forever (Prance and Elias 1977).
(Image (left) of the Passenger Pigeon. Once thought to be one of the most abundant birds in North America and the second largest flocking animal in the world was hunted to extinction by 1914.)
(Check out E.O. Wilson's Encyclopedia of Life to view one of the most comprehensive undertakings to date of compiling and allowing access to the wonders of life on Earth.)
Why should we care about extinctions? On purely practical grounds, biological organisms are important economic resources for food, medicines, shelter, energy, biotechnology (biomimicry - copying organisms in engineering and design), spirituality, and aesthetics. And yet, we have only documented 2 million of the 30 million non-microbial species believed to exist. The potential to derive greater benefits may be tremendous. For example, fewer than 10 percent of Amazonia’s flowering plant species have been examined for their chemical compounds, some of which likely would have applications in food, medicine, or industry. In 1988, less than 6% of Brazilian Amazonia had been cleared; today the number is near 20%. With the high percentage of micro-endemic species in the Amazon, surely many species have been lost without being documented by modern science. Other regions are in worse shape. In Haiti, for example, less than 4% of its land is covered by forest and essentially none of its original forest cover remains (FAO 2010, Haggerty 1989). In Madagascar little more than 5% of the country’s primary forest remains (FAO 2010). How many species were lost in these tropical environments and at what cost and for what benefit?
Yet, as alarming as species extinctions are, they only begin to tell the whole story of biological impoverishment. When the huge genetic and ecological casualties that occur daily, and the impact such losses have on the evolutionary processes that affect future biodiversity are factored in, the toll becomes incomprehensible.
In less obvious terms, many believe that nature makes us human: we learn from nature, we love nature, we depend on nature, and we are deeply a part of nature. Wilson put it right in his 1984 book Biophilia where he argued that as living beings we are deeply connected to, and dependent on life’s web in ways that we cannot fully understand. He reminded us that having evolved in this world, our ﬁtness and quality of life will be compromised in a biologically impoverished and ecologically dysfunctional world. He stated:
“… as biological knowledge grows the ethic will shift fundamentally so that everywhere … the fauna and ﬂora of a country will be thought part of the national heritage as important as its art, [and] its language” (Wilson 1984:145).
This is where education must make the case. It is incumbent upon us to educate an aware and concerned citizenry that can act intentionally in the maintenance of biodiversity and the life-supporting processes of Earth’s amazing ecosphere.
(CC Image courtesy of khteWisconsin on Flickr)